December 13, 2019
Carter Zupancich | MediaWise Teen Fact-Checker

MediaWise Rating: Legit

You probably see fact pages every day across your social media feeds, spinning wild claims. But how accurate are the bizarre tidbits they share? 

One of the popular fact pages, Weird Facts, posted on its Facebook page, which has over 5 million followers, that “NASA tested the effects of multiple drugs on a spider’s ability to spin webs.” Why would NASA test drugs on spiders? Does Weird Facts have the information wrong? I dove into the actual facts to find out whether this post is a tangled web of deceit.

Who’s behind the information?

First, I looked around the web to see how reputable Weird Facts is by opening new tabs and reading laterally — across tabs rather than reading a single website vertically. The user’s main social presence is on Facebook — their Instagram only garners hundreds of thousands of followers compared to the millions following its Facebook page. After browsing through their social-media pages, I noticed their website. It appears to be a page hosted on the blogging platform Tumblr, on which anyone can sign up and start blogging. Further, there is no About Me page with information about the author or owner — not good signs about their veracity. Finally, we did a search of the ICANN Whois registry, which gives information about who owns a web page. The owner isn’t listed, but the location of the registrant is Uttar Pradesh, India.

See what other sources are saying

After first using a keyword search to find Weird Facts’ other social media pages and website, I established that they have a large following, but couldn’t find out who’s behind the information. After doing a keyword search I started reading laterally. I found an article from Science Alert stating, “The results… were published in NASA Tech Briefs.”

Read upstream

Science Alert linked to this technical paper on Wayback Machine, an internet archive, which explained, “Spiders exposed to various chemicals, spin webs that differ…” NASA exposed spiders to caffeine, marijuana and other drugs and recorded how they the webs they spun turned out. Two notes: Wayback Machine is a great fact-checking tool if an organization has deleted something it’s using for research. Two: Going straight to the source — NASA — is called reading upstream.

Use Wikipedia responsibly

I wanted to do some deeper digging, so I continued reading laterally and opened a new tab. This time I checked to see what I could find on Wikipedia, which is a good place to research sources or claims — just don’t base all your research there. Wikipedia has a page dedicated to research using drugs and animals. In the section on spiders, you can see a description of this very experience. And, as you should in any Wikipedia article, follow the subscript number — the small “1” right after the passage — to a link to a source. Here, we find an article in a reputable source, London-based New Scientist magazine further confirming the claim. In fact, looking at the subscript 4, you can find a journal article showing that scientists have been testing drugs on spiders since the 1950s.

Our rating

Although the claim seemed preposterous at first, we can use some lateral reading to quickly verify these claims.Sometimes it’s good to dig for facts with other tools, such as Wayback Machine, the ICANN Whois registry and good old Wikipedia. This post is LEGIT.

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Alex Mahadevan is director of MediaWise at the Poynter Institute. He has taught digital media literacy to thousands of middle and high schoolers, and has…
Alex Mahadevan

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